How to drive a car that’s not a car!

Fernando Alonso... purposeful driving.-AP

Red Bull, which has the two best cars in the field, is confident of making up lost ground in the second half of the season. For the time being, though, Alonso is the man to beat, writes G. Raghunath.

At the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix — which sent out a fourth different winner this year — Christian Horner made a pertinent remark that not only defined the course that the 2012 World Championship would charter but also provided a guileless solution to racing in this highly competitive season. “In races you can’t win,” the Red Bull Racing Principal said, “you have to be consistent, taking the maximum out of them. And in the races that you can win, you need to deliver.”

These words, however, appeared to have had an effect on the Ferrari driver, Fernando Alonso, more than Horner’s own men, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

Now picture this: Defending champion Vettel and team-mate Webber struggle for the best part of the first half of the season despite having the fastest cars on the grid as Red Bull, which had ruthlessly killed off even the slightest of challenges from its rivals last year, labours to find the right tyre and pitstop strategies.

On the other hand, Scuderia Ferrari, the most successful team in Formula One (going by the numbers, at least) enters the season with cars that are abysmally off the pace. The team works overtime at its base in Maranello to fix the problem even as it hopes for its drivers to get the maximum out of the unresponsive machines. Felipe Massa, who narrowly lost the World title to Lewis Hamilton in 2008, has probably his worst year in Formula One, but Alonso, World champion in 2005 and 2006, scores points in each of the 11 races run so far.

He wins three races (Malaysian, European and German Grands Prix), finishes on the podium in two (Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix) and goes into the mid-season or the summer break leading the table with 164 points, 40 ahead of Mark Webber in second place.

So, riding piggyback on Alonso’s brilliant driving, Ferrari, much like a boxer revived by a whiff of sal volatile, is set to go to Spa (September 9) fully recharged and loaded.

No doubt, we have seen Alonso in better times, scoring some phenomenal victories, but considering the circumstances the Spaniard’s performance in the first half of the season was simply out of the ordinary. How often have we seen a driver perform at such levels of efficiency, and that too sitting behind the wheel of what the Ferrari chief, Stefano Domenicali calls, “a car that was not a car?”

Alonso’s derring-do would have undeniably been comforting for Domenicali and company despite the harsh reality that the other half of Ferrari has not been up to the challenges that the current season has laid out.

In Formula One, seldom has a driver’s performance — whether he has won, finished on the podium or out of it — received such fanatical attention. Alonso’s staggering victory in a wet Malaysian Grand Prix after starting from eighth place on the grid, finishing an incredible fifth after qualifying for the 12th position in the Australian Grand Prix and the gripping drive in Monaco where he achieved a podium finish after starting fifth have all helped reinforce the Spaniard’s reputation as one of the best drivers in the world.

Even more, they have also helped present a new Alonso to the world, one not even remotely connected with the Alonso of a few seasons ago — a carping, squabbling and discontented driver, always suspicious about his position in the teams he had been. The Alonso of today is prudent, imperturbable, a man of strong will, and every bit a team man. As Domenicali would have us believe, Alonso has fitted very nicely into the ‘Ferrari Family.’

For all his brilliant driving, the fact that the indifferent performances of leading teams such as Red Bull and McLaren offered Ferrari more openings than it actually deserved cannot be discounted. While nearly all the teams struggled to handle the latest generation of Pirellis, McLaren (especially in Button’s case) and even Red Bull never really got their tyre strategy right. Besides, recurrent operational problems considerably undermined the working of the Woking-based outfit.

For Red Bull, problems seemed to be interminable. First, it had to fix a bug in its engine alternator. Next was the floorboard issue that forced the team to change its cars’ aerodynamic package completely. No sooner had this problem been sorted out than the engine mapping controversy (Red Bull cars were deemed to be running with a mapping that reduced the engine torque, which gave them advantage over others) cropped up. These issues completely took away the focus of Red Bull.

However, the best two cars in the field, in terms of speed and set-up, come from the Red Bull pit. Therefore, the team is confident of making up lost ground in the second half of the season. “We go into the summer break 53 points in the lead in the Constructors’ Championship and both our drivers are second and third in the Drivers’ Championship. With 225 points still available and nine races to go, it’s going to be full on,” said Horner.

For the time being, though, Alonso is the man to beat.

* * * THE CHALLENGERS Mark Webber, Red Bull, (124 points)

Has performed relatively well for a team that has had to grapple with a load of technical issues.

Webber had a good chance to finish on the podium in the Hungarian Grand Prix, but was scuttled by the team’s baffling three-pitstop strategy that saw the Aussie finish eighth after having progressed to fifth from 11th position.

After 2010, this is Webber’s best chance for a shot at the World title, but with team-mate Sebastian Vettel breathing down his neck, you never really know.

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, (122 points)

He should have been in a far more comfortable position going into the break had it not been for the 20-second penalty he was handed in Hockenheim for an illegal manoeuvre in trying to overhaul Jenson Button. That dropped him from second place to fifth, which meant a loss of eight clear points.

However, with nine races to go and 225 points to be won, the German says there is plenty of racing to come. Should Vettel win this season, he would become the youngest driver in history to take three World titles.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, (117 points)

The British driver’s performance has oscillated from the brilliant to the bizarre. He should have won more than the two races he has so far. However, not all his problems are self-made, like the bungled pitstop in Valencia and the puncture in Germany that cost him dearly. The victory in Hungary couldn’t have come at a better time for Hamilton, who adjourned for the summer break on a high. However, McLaren needs more speed to overhaul the front-runners, and that is exactly what Hamilton has been trying to impress upon his team.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus, (116 points)

A great comeback, without doubt. After Alonso, he has been the most consistent driver this season. The Finn is only second to Alonso in the number of points scored in the last five races — he has 65 to the Spaniard’s 88. He and his team are banking heavily on their new ‘Double DRS,’ which they plan to unveil at the Belgian Grand Prix. The mechanism is said to reduce the drag of the car throughout its run.

Lotus is also expected to fix the car’s steering that has retarded the progress of its drivers, especially Raikkonen.